Nearly four years ago this week, Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s campaign released a punishing religious attack ad, entitled “The One.” The segment was stuffed with enough complex symbolism to make Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Dan Brown, and the authors of the Left Behind series look like pre-school finger-painters. It aspired to depict then-Sen. Barack Obama as some sort of cocky, Kool-Aid ladling, cult figure about to lead America into apocalyptic oblivion.
I guess early August must be the faith and values killing season. Mitt Romney’s team has just aired an aggressive spot accusing the incumbent of declaring a “war on religion.” “When religious freedom is threatened,” asks a narrator, “who do you want to stand with?” That more than half of the thirty-second ad is comprised of footage of Romney’s recent visit to Poland interspersed with images of Pope John Paul II is not, as we shall see, a coincidence.
The change in messaging across the election cycles is subtle but significant. The McCain commercial depicted Obama as a religious quack. Romney, however, paints the president as an enemy of religion. What we need to figure out is why the presumptive GOP nominee is now pursuing this line of attack and whether it will be effective.
The Context - An Uneasy Silence: Let me start off by noting that those of us who have been tracking religious politicking in the 2012 presidential election are, well, disappointed. Unlike 2008, which we recall with fondness and awe, there has been little over-the-top faith and values campaigning. Indeed one of the biggest religion stories so far has been the absence of religion stories! (Needless to say, the Santorums, and Gingriches, and Perrys, and Cains, and Bachmanns of the GOP primaries gave us much to ponder. We salute them all.)
The reasons for this absence are complex and not entirely clear. I as well as others have offered a few basic surmises. Foremost among them is this: anti-Mormon prejudice, regrettably, is still alive among some sectors of the population. This forces the very devout Romney to be exceedingly cautious about how he publicly discusses a religion that many Americans know very little about.
President Obama, for his part, has run afoul conservative Catholics and Protestants because of his acceptance of gay marriage and most notably his administration’s HHS mandates (requiring employers to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ insurance packages).
The latter policy has absolutely incensed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; no amount of concessions by the administration can quell the bishops’ anger. “Religious freedom” has become their rallying cry and white conservative evangelicals have been more than happy to join along.
It emerges from this that the president himself must be very cautious about further alienating the American church and, by association, the game-changing Catholic vote. As far as President Obama’s team sees it, the less said about religion until Election Day, the better.
The Strategy: In fact, it is precisely here where the Romney team has sensed vulnerability and opportunity. The ad itself makes much of Romney’s recent trip to Poland. That trip, not coincidentally, was widely seen as an effort to reach out to American Catholics--the largest single denominational voting bloc in the country.
In my own research I have noted that when white conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics lock arms (as they did in the 2004 election) they are a force to be reckoned with. Romney’s decision to invoke the “religious freedom” rhetoric used by the religious right throughout the year makes sense.
The Backstory - Not Bleak Enough: Yet while it might make sense, it may also be an indication of message sprawl, if not outright panic. Throughout this campaign Team Romney has been adamant about focusing on the economy, the economy, and the economy.
The problem is that the economy, while not necessarily thriving, is not tanking either. Washington Post writer Greg Sargent is on to something when he suggests Obama’s strategy is to fight Romney to a draw on the economy. In light of the fiscal news we have been hearing recently, I wonder if the Romney team now believes they have to pivot away from the economy towards more volatile “social issues.” Put differently, the economy isn’t bleak enough. Romney needs to launch a new offensive.
The Score: Will it work? I am not sure. “Religious freedom” advocacy reached an absolute fever pitch in the early spring. Yet, some signs indicate that anger over the HHS mandates is not necessarily growing beyond its base of religious conservatives.
Many congressional Republicans, perhaps worried about looking like they are carrying out a “war on women,” seem to have lost their zeal and zest for the issue.
If the economy continues to not implode, Romney may need to expand his message towards other non-economic “social issues” in order to overcome Obama.
Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor and director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His next book “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom” will be released in September. Follow him on Twitter @Berlinerblau.